Brian Cox on 007: Road to a Million, James Bond and life after Succession
He talks all things to do with Prime Video's new reality series.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
How do you follow one of the biggest, most critically acclaimed roles on TV? For 77-year-old Brian Cox, fresh off the final series of Sky Atlantic's drama Succession, the answer was simple – do something completely different.
"It's very hard when you go from a show like Succession and try to work out what you're going to do next," he says. "I'm always up for a new adventure. That's how you keep young when you get to my age."
Though, arguably, he's not left the sharp suits and Rolexes of Logan Roy too far behind – because when I visit the set of Cox's new show, I'm assailed by glitz, glamour and luxury from the moment I enter.
In a beautiful beach-fronted Jamaican villa, a casino is in full swing. As the waves lap at the edge of a private bay, guests resplendent in tuxedos and cocktail dresses have gathered to play roulette and craps.
There are nods to the James Bond movies: a metal briefcase on a table, vodka martinis, an iguana sitting on a guest’s shoulder (a reference to villain Franz Sanchez’s pet in A Licence to Kill). Even the croupier is a familiar face – he faced off with Daniel Craig in 2006's Casino Royale.
I've not entered some kind of MI6-themed fugue state – I'm on set for 007: Road to a Million, a Bond-themed reality show that sees contestants competing for a massive prize pot. Not that it's being marketed as "a reality show" – nor does it look like any reality show seen on the small screen before.
Road to a Million is a joint venture between three unlikely bedfellows: streaming service Amazon Prime Video, production company 72 Films (best known for documentaries such as All or Nothing and 9/11: One Day in America) and Eon, the producers of the James Bond movies, who have never before allowed their franchise to be used on TV.
The premise is simple: nine pairs of contestants are sent around the world searching for a silver briefcase containing a quiz question.
Often the search involves dramatic stunts – such as swinging from cable cars in Rio de Janeiro à la Moonraker – and each correct answer earns an ever-increasing pot of money, with a £1 million cash prize for any pair that makes it to the end. That means an eye-watering £9 million pot is potentially available if they all make it through.
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At the heart of it all is a shadowy puppet master called "the Controller", who sets questions and watches from his lair: inspired by classic Bond villains such as Blofeld, and played by Cox.
"Now I can finally say I’ve been in a Bond production!" Cox says. "I always thought I'd be a very good villain, but nobody's ever offered. Having played one of the most misunderstood men in television history [in Succession], it was a no-brainer to be a Bond villain of sorts."
Few would have put money on the plain-speaking, classically trained Scottish thesp starring in a reality show, but Cox says he was looking for "a bit of fun" after an intense five years inhabiting the almost-permanently furious billionaire mogul, Logan Roy.
The role allows him to once again flex the skills he showed in Succession: the Controller is stern but cerebral and witty, and enjoys toying with the contestants, not unlike the way Logan Roy played his children off against each other as they squabbled over who would take over the running of his media empire.
"I was probably one of the first to know that [Succession] was going to finish, and I thought, 'They're killing me off, so what do I do next?'" he says. "As you get older, life becomes increasingly ridiculous, so you either laugh or you cry, and I prefer the laughter. And I really enjoyed it. I don't know if 'risk' is the right word, but certainly it's unusual territory for me. I thought it could be funny.
"You keep it bouncy and you keep the variety, rather than thinking, 'I must go off and do something heavy now.' I couldn't do 50 years of Poirot or whatever. It's fantastic but [David Suchet] did it over a very long period of time. I couldn't."
Of course, this isn't Cox's first spy game. He may never have been a Bond villain, but from 2002 he did play CIA boss Ward Abbott in the Bourne trilogy, which is widely credited with reviving the espionage genre that was, at the time, in danger of looking a bit passé.
And Cox agrees with many critics at the time who thought that Matt Damon's Jason Bourne may have inspired Daniel Craig's Bond, who appeared four years later as a tougher, darker 007.
"[The Bourne Identity] was a bit more modern," he says. "Then Dan inhabited Bond brilliantly. But lately I've been looking back at the Bond films from the '60s onwards, which has been wonderful. They have a style that was really endearing and mapped a particular period of my life."
Cox praises the third Bond star, Roger Moore, as being one of his favourites, calling him "witty". Yet the older Bond films face accusations of not being politically correct. Does Cox think it’s fine to still show them, even if they contain language and attitudes we wouldn't use today?
"Yeah, I think that's OK," he says, "because the only way we can understand who we are is by acknowledging our history.
"Look what's happening in the world today: if we had a real sense of who we are, we wouldn't have had the idiotic clown from Eton [Boris Johnson] or the Pink Pinocchio [Donald Trump] or Borsch and Tears [Vladimir Putin].
"People have disclaimers now on some older programming, which is fine, but at the same time, it's a wonderful tradition that we try to carry on. We don't muck around with Shakespeare; we shouldn't muck around with James Bond."
These days, the lines between big and small screen have blurred. With movie-size budgets available on streaming services, we increasingly see film stars and studios heading to TV, whether that's Hollywood big-hitters Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Harrison Ford joining streaming shows, or Disney transferring their Star Wars and Marvel superheroes to television.
But this is the first time a multi-million pound global franchise like Bond has dipped its toes into reality TV – and Eon agreed partly because the show is visually spectacular, filmed on the sweeping cinematic scale Bond is known for.
According to Bond producer and 007: Road to a Million executive producer Gregg Wilson, it was important to strike a balance between having a Bond theme – including certain Bond props as little "Easter eggs" for fans, for example, and filming at real Bond locations – but not muddying the waters by including characters like Bond himself, M or Q.
"It would be breaking through the fourth wall to have characters from the movie franchise," Wilson says. "Our contestants are real people, and if they interacted with people from a fictional world, it would feel strange.
"So it all takes place in the real world, but there's this Bond villain puppet master who is dangling prize money in front of these contestants in very outlandish ways. Brian has really elevated it to the next level."
Those "real people" contestants rubbing shoulders in Jamaica with the glamorous casino clientele include two cockney brothers, emergency care nurses and a couple who've rarely been abroad, having had three children soon after getting married.
"A lot of the ideas that have been proposed to us over the years have been people trying to be James Bond," Wilson says. "When we shoot our films with elaborate action sequences, it's complicated, and it's difficult to do that at a reduced budget in order to do it safely.
"We have a very low appetite for risk, despite our films appearing to be the opposite. So it was refreshing to have a proposal that was more about falling in love with these contestants.
"You'll get sucked in because it's Bond and it's exciting and there's great sums of money involved, but the thing you'll fall in love with are these real-life people."
Bond’s series producer Barbara Broccoli agrees. "For me, the most joy has been watching the emotional rollercoaster of their journeys.
"I was very moved getting to know the contestants and was in awe of their bravery in confronting some of their deepest fears."
So, has Cox been bitten by the reality bug: might we see him make a more permanent move to entertainment now? Will he take over from Claudia Winkleman in The Traitors, or show us his paso doble on Strictly?
Unlikely. He’s currently playing Bach in The Score at the Theatre Royal Bath, which ends its run this Saturday. He says it contains a nightmarish number of lines.
"I wanted to see if I still had any theatre chops. The last time I did a play [The Great Society in 2019], they played a dirty trick. It was going to be a dramatised reading, which meant that I didn't have to learn any lines.
"But after the first week of rehearsals, they said, 'It's going so well we’ve decided to do a full production,' and I said, 'I'm never going to know the whole thing in two weeks, forget it!' So they gave me an ear-piece and a lovely guy fed me the lines.
"It was a bit of a cheat. As you get older, you might need assistance in certain ways, but I'm trying to still do it without any help."
Still, whatever comes next, and even if Road to a Million is a massive hit, Cox has made peace with one hard-to-deny fact: he'll probably be remembered chiefly as Succession’s Logan Roy for the rest of his career.
"When I left the show [at the start of the final season], people were writing to say, 'We're not going to watch any more,' and I'd think, 'Well, it's called Succession – this is the succession bit you've been waiting for, for four seasons, so you should stick with it now!'"
"Not that I'm ungrateful," Cox adds. "Logan was one of the greatest roles ever – and it just got greater and greater."
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